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Non-opioid options for managing chronic pain

September 1, 2016

69367712-dccd-4d98-a824-aa08a40d86f316207267620663If you started taking prescription opioids to manage chronic pain, then you will need new pain relief options when you cut back or stop taking opioid drugs. Following are options that alone, or in combination, may help.

Cold and heat. Cold can be useful soon after an injury to relieve pain, decrease inflammation and muscle spasms, and help speed recovery. Heat raises your pain threshold and relaxes muscles.

Exercise. Staying physically active, despite some pain, can play a helpful role for people with some of the more common pain conditions, including low back pain, arthritis, and fibromyalgia.

Weight loss. Many painful health conditions are worsened by excess weight. It makes sense, then, that losing weight can help to relieve some kinds of pain.

Physical therapy (PT) and occupational therapy (OT). PT helps to restore or maintain your ability to move and walk. OT helps improve your ability to perform activities of daily living, such as dressing, bathing, and eating.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). This technique employs a very mild electrical current to block pain signals going from the body to the brain.

Iontophoresis. This form of electrical stimulation is used to drive medications into areas of pain and reduce inflammation.

Ultrasound. This therapy directs sound waves into tissue. It is sometimes used to improve blood circulation, decrease inflammation, and promote healing.

Cold laser therapy. Cold laser therapy, also called low-level laser therapy, is FDA-approved to treat pain conditions. The cold laser emits pure light of a single wavelength that is absorbed into an injured area and may reduce inflammation and stimulate tissue repair.

Mind-body techniques. Mind-body relaxation techniques are commonly used at hospital-based pain clinics. They include:

  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
  • Breathing exercises
  • Hypnosis therapy

Yoga and tai chi. These mind-body and exercise practices incorporate breath control, meditation, and movements to stretch and strengthen muscles. They may help with chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia, low back pain, arthritis, or headaches.

Biofeedback. This machine-assisted technique helps people take control of their own body responses, including pain.

Therapeutic massage. Therapeutic massage may relieve pain by relaxing painful muscles, tendons, and joints; relieving stress and anxiety; and possibly impeding pain messages to and from the brain.

Chiropractic. Chiropractors try to correct the body's alignment to relieve pain and improve function and to help the body heal itself.

Acupuncture. Acupuncture involves inserting extremely fine needles into the skin at specific points on the body. This action may relieve pain by releasing endorphins, the body's natural painkilling chemicals. It may also influence levels of serotonin, the brain transmitter involved with mood.

Psychotherapy. These professionals can offer many avenues for pain relief and management. For example, they can help you reframe negative thinking patterns about your pain that may be interfering with your ability to function well in life, work, and relationships. Seeing a mental health professional does not mean the pain is "all in your head."

Pain-relieving devices. A range of assistive devices can help support painful joints, relieve the pressure on irritated nerves, and soothe aches and pains. They include splints, braces, canes, crutches, walkers, and shoe orthotics.

Topical pain relievers. These medication-containing creams and ointments are applied to the skin. They may be used instead of or in addition to other treatments.

Over-the-counter medications. Pain relievers that you can buy without a prescription, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), and naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn) can help to relieve mild to moderate pain.

Herbal or nutritional pain relievers. Scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness for pain relief is scant.

Non-opioid prescription drugs. Certain medications can be very effective for treating condition-specific pain. Examples include triptans for migraine headaches and gabapentin (Neurontin) or pregabalin (Lyrica) for nerve pain.

Corticosteroid injections. Used occasionally, corticosteroid injections can relieve pain and inflammation caused by arthritis, sciatica, and other conditions.

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As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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